When is a game not a game? When it's a Federal Aviation Association approved flight training simulator. We well remember our first go on Microsoft Flight Simulator on a PC, with its cardboard keyboard overlay and choice of two dozen airports in that early version. Alas, this venerable package - 25 years old - has fallen victim to recession. The development team got the axe in a round of cuts early this year.
So, the baton passes to X-Plane, an independent project available on Windows, Linux and, of course, Mac OS X. We've been giving this flight sim a spin and it's pretty breathtaking. It's also mind numbing. While finding your way around the control system of a bog standard space simulator can sometimes take a little while, X-Plane really does simulate the process of piloting an aircraft. With control tower chatter in your ears, and multiple instruments to monitor, you'll struggle at first to keep your aircraft moving in a straight line. Having said that - X-Plane has several advantages over Microsoft Flight Simulator - and one is that you don't have to use the keyboard. The cockpit flight controls are right there in front of you onscreen - and with mouse control enabled you can fly the plane without even touching those.
Though the demo version has restricted scenery available, the full DVD has hundreds of aircraft and airports, thousands of miles of beautifully rendered 3D terrain. If the world's airports aren't enough, X-Plane even includes Martian terrain and NASA's Space Shuttle as one of its aircraft choices.
Though we struggled to master X-Plane, that's no slight on the software. It's testimony to its realism. In fact, compared to other flight sims we've encountered, the control system is remarkably intuitive. Billed as the most comprehensive flight simulator available and used in commercial schools to train potential pilots, we can't recommend it enough.